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The old man and his god, p.4
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       The Old Man and His God, p.4

           Sudha Murty
 
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  Now I was amazed at the boy’s honesty. I looked closely at his form and at the permanent address. He was the son of a very successful doctor. Obviously money or fame had not robbed him of his honesty and simplicity.

  9

  The Business of Philanthropy

  Sri Hiralal Jain was a successful pharmacist and businessman. He was kind-hearted, unassuming and shy. He had started his career in a pharmaceutical company and had gone on to build his own empire through hard work and honesty.

  One day, he came to meet me. We talked about our various projects and initiatives for some time, then he started talking about himself. ‘Mrs Murty, God has been exceedingly kind to me. My company is doing well and we are able to launch new products regularly. As a result we have a large range. I have only one son who is studying abroad. I am sure he will complete his studies, join my work and make it even more successful. I am always busy with work and travel and now I feel I have made enough money to last another generation. But there is one gap. I feel I have not done enough to give back to society in any big way. That is why I have come here today with a request.’

  I was still not sure where the conversation was leading, and asked him to go on.

  ‘I have learnt a lot about your work with the Infosys Foundation. You help people in the villages and slums. So I want to give you some basic medicines that you can distribute to the poor people. You can appoint a doctor to help you with your work in slums, I will pay his salary and also provide the medicines free.’

  I was touched. I said, ‘Your proposal is wonderful but we already have some doctors who work part-time on our projects. I will talk to them and tell them to make a list of the medicines they require. I will send you that list every month and come and collect the medicines at an appointed time from your office.’

  ‘No, no, you need not come. I will send them to you. But I have one condition.’

  I was worried. I should have known. No one gives a free lunch!

  Hiralal Jain said, ‘Nobody must come to know of my association with this work. I don’t want my name or my company’s name to appear anywhere. I want to savour the joy of giving without the publicity. I will remain an unknown donor.’

  This was a most unusual request. Normally, most of the people who come with donations are already planning their media statements. They may give the smallest sums of money, but hearing them talk it would seem that they had funded our entire operations.

  I agreed readily to his proposal. And so it was decided that every month his head clerk Karim would come with a box of the required medicines. His delivery van came near our office to some retail outlets and our supply would come in that.

  I thanked Hiralal Jain and sent up a prayer that ‘May his tribe increase’.

  So the system fell into place. Initially Hiralal donated Rs 10,000 worth of medicines, which slowly went up to Rs 50,000. He gave us his old Fiat car so the doctors could visit the slums in ease. But we hardly met. Whenever I called him to thank him he would tell me not to waste my time. When I sent him pictures of our medical camps he would call me and say he did not require proof of our work. He had faith in us.

  Years went by. Our work got more and more attention and many people started coming up and offering help. One pharmacy store offered to give us as much medicines we wanted every month. But I was reluctant to close the relationship with Hiralal Jain.

  One morning I got the news that he had passed away in his sleep. I prayed in silence. A pious soul like that had to go with minimum of fuss and suffering. I went to his office to pay my last respects. Ironically, I realized it was my first visit to his office in so many years. It was simple and decorated spartanly. I noticed a young handsome man in white with red, swollen eyes. The head clerk Karim whispered to me, ‘That is Saket Saab. He has just returned from the US.’

  I gathered Saket had studied for his MBA in the US and was working there for some years. Now he would come back and take over the business.

  Days passed and for two months the old system with Hiralal’s company continued. The medicine parcels reached us on time. The third month there was no sign of it. I thought I would wait for a few days and then call. When there was still no sign I dialled Hiralal’s office number. A polite voice answered from the other side. I assumed it was the receptionist and wondered what had happened to Karim. I was made to hold the line for some time. Then finally I was told, ‘Saket would like to meet you at his office tomorrow morning at nine.’

  Since he was the donor it was my duty to respect his wishes. I reached at 8.45 and was taken aback at the changes. Gone was the old spartan look. This was a modern corporate house with a pretty receptionist, fresh flowers in vases, framed paintings on the walls. There was a leather sofa set and the floor was now gleaming granite. A young lady ushered me to an antechamber and offered me some drinks. There was a huge portrait of Hiralal Jain in the hallway. Soon it was nearing nine o’clock, and I started making my way to Saket’s office. But I was stopped by the receptionist. ‘I am sorry, Saket sir is talking to a business executive and this may take ten more minutes. Please wait.’ So I waited. When it was 9.45, I decided it was enough and told her I was leaving. She spoke on the intercom and showed me in finally. When I entered I saw the business executive was still there. Saket looked at him apologetically and excused himself for five minutes. Then he turned to me and came straight to the point.

  ‘I have been going through our old records. My father gave you enormous amounts of money anonymously. I think that was a mistake and a waste of money. I am willing to continue our association but on some new terms. Our company’s and my name should appear prominently whenever you hold a camp. You must send someone to pick up the medicines every month. I can give you supplies only from our surplus stock and not what you want. You must address our employees once a year and talk about our donation. After all, philanthropy is key to business promotion.’

  By this time, five minutes were over and I got up. Politely I said, ‘Thank you but I cannot agree. I cannot find surplus diseases to suit your surplus medicines. I wanted to thank you for the support your father gave us over the years. The conditions were of his choice and we respected that. Now that our association is ending I just want to say, don’t mix business and philanthropy. You will not be able to do justice to either. Your father understood that. Perhaps one day you will too.’

  I left the office and in the hallway stood and looked at Hiralal Jain’s photo for a minute. Silently I said a final goodbye and stepped out.

  10

  A Helping Hand

  Like many natural disasters of great magnitude, the tsunami waves that struck the shores of our country in December 2004, opened our eyes to the myriad shades of human nature. Through the media, we saw and heard time and again about the devastation wreaked on coastal communities and how aid was pouring in from everywhere. In places which were in the news, the victims were soon inundated by a wave of relief material—saris, dhotis, towels, bed sheets, cooking stoves, vessels, plastic buckets, drinking water, mats, etc. In towns like Nagapattinam, Kadalur, Velankani and Karaikal, one could also see heaps of old and worn-out clothes which no one wanted, lying untouched on either sides of the road.

  The relief camps and wedding halls in these places had plenty of volunteers initially, distributing food or ration, giving injections to stop the spread of diseases and helping the injured. Often the victims expressed their dissatisfaction at the food being served as local food habits were being overlooked. Instead they demanded to be allowed to cook their own food. The donor and the benefactor were right in their own ways in this matter.

  Our team from the foundation set out first on a fact-finding mission before starting the relief work. For one, we decided to visit the towns in the news later, after they had moved away from the airwaves and the first rush of volunteers had departed. Meanwhile, we went to the smaller, lesser known villages and made a list of the essential articles needed by the people. We discovered that in some towns there was
plenty of relief material, but the people had no place to store them and incidents of theft or fights over ownership were becoming common. In other places we realized that the most basic material required for the people to get their lives back together were missing.

  Armed with this data we devised the ‘tsunami survival kit’. It was a bit like the survival kits I had seen in some stores in the USA, though those were meant for mountaineering accidents. We made some modifications and started assembling our own kit: a huge aluminium trunk with a five-level lock and twenty-five articles that we found were essential for the survivors. While the trunk itself could be used for storage, inside we included things like a tarpaulin, medicines, torch, a small radio, groceries, toiletries, etc. It was a novel idea and our team worked tirelessly in gathering everything.

  We purchased most of the items from the source, and the moment the suppliers heard it was for relief work they offered us large discounts and even delivered the material free.

  Given the scale of our work, we needed a large area to spread out all the items, assemble the kits and to check if we had put in everything in all the trunks. There were ten of us working on this. My student George Joseph offered us the use of the huge basement of his bungalow, somewhere in the outskirts of Bangalore. We got all the material delivered straight to the basement and started our work in earnest. I was amazed at my team’s dedication and professionalism. They assembled nearly a thousand trunks in two days. George too visited us often to ask if we needed anything and made provisions for snacks and tea. The whole process was going smoothly and soon we were ready to start loading the trunks on to the trucks. Now we had a problem. It was difficult to do the loading from our basement workplace and we felt it would be better if we could store them together in a place accessible to a truck. George, as usual, had a solution to our problem. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told me. ‘The adjacent plot is empty and I know the owner. The architect comes there once in a while, but if we take permission from his office I am sure they will not have a problem with us storing the trunks there for one night. Nobody will say no to such work.’

  The plot was big and a corner one and therefore most convenient for loading the material. We all thought it was a good idea.

  The next day, a bright young lady arrived at our basement. Beaming, she introduced herself as a junior architect in the architect’s office. ‘Lankesh, our main architect is out of station. I came to know through George that you would like to store the trunks on this site. I think it is a nice idea. Not all of us are able to go and help the victims but this way we can do our small bit for them.’

  ‘Thank you. But I hope it will not hinder your work!’ I replied.

  ‘No Madam, not at all. Anyway the survey people are coming next week. Please do not hesitate to ask us for any help.’

  By the time our work was completed and we shifted everything to the neighbouring plot, it was almost evening. The truck was supposed to come the next morning and all our volunteers were just waiting to go home and rest. They had worked very hard and I felt proud of them. I have learnt that it is better to have ten people who work sincerely than to have hundred people working halfheartedly. I was lucky that all my team members were so hardworking.

  Just as we were about to leave a Mercedes drew up in front of us and a man emerged from it, prominently bearing his cellphone and blackberry. He looked smart and was well dressed, but the expression on his face clearly showed his displeasure over some matter.

  He approached me and without a word of greeting demanded, ‘Who gave you the permission to store your stuff on this plot?’

  I realized this was Lankesh, the main architect.

  As politely as I could, I answered, ‘George told me that he would talk to you and take permission from your office. Yesterday your assistant came and said it was all right. So, I assumed that you were aware of it.’

  ‘No. That is not true. I was travelling and nobody has informed me about this. You may be doing relief work but please understand that you have put your material here without my permission. You should have taken my permission and not my assistant’s. I am the architect, and this entire area is my responsibility.’

  Surprised at his outburst I said, ‘I am sorry for the mistake. Anyway it is a matter of another ten hours. Tomorrow morning the trucks will come and we will load everything on to them.’

  ‘It does not concern me whether it is a matter of a night or a day. I had called the survey people to do their job today. They will come any time. I want you to remove everything.’

  ‘Your assistant told me that they will come only next week. How can I possibly remove so many heavy trunks in such a short time and where can we keep them?’ I pleaded.

  ‘I do not know. It is not my problem. Perhaps you can pile them on the roadside. You have not taken my permission. If you had told me earlier, I would have made some space for you.’ The man would not budge from his position.

  By this time I realized that it was not a matter of us taking permission. He only wanted to show off his power to us. I have met many such people in my work and I knew the futility of arguing with him. But my team members were all young and, by now, boiling over with anger at the man’s impudence. They started arguing with him but I stopped them.

  ‘Sorry. I will shift these trunks right now and keep them on the road. We will vacate your plot at the earliest. It means a lot of extra work for us but that is the penalty we will have to pay for incurring your displeasure.’

  ‘Ma’am, if you keep the trunks on the roadside, they may be stolen or somebody may raise further objections,’ Kumar, one of the volunteers, raised his voice in panic.

  I smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry. We will put our banner there and no thief will touch the material. I am sure none of the other neighbours will complain when they know for whom they are meant.’

  And it happened just like that. The trunks were kept on the roadside that night and loaded on to the truck the next morning without a hitch. After the trucks left, Kumar came to my office. He was looking dejected and for a while sat with a thoughtful look on his face. Then he said, ‘Ma’am, we don’t know the victims, they are not related to us in any way. Some of us don’t even speak their language. We are doing this only because we want to help in some way. Why can’t people understand this? The architect was so rude to you yesterday. Did you not get perturbed? You said you meet people like him often in your work. Tell me Ma’am, why should we do this work if we don’t get anything in return except harsh words?’

  Just then there was a knock on my door and the security guard I had seen on the plot where we had initially kept the trunks came into the room. I was taken aback and wondered why he had come to my office now that the whole episode was over.

  He said, ‘Madam, what Lankesh sir did yesterday was wrong. But I am only a poor employee, I could not stand up to him then. After you left yesterday I finished my duty and spent the night guarding the trunks. I did not take your permission for that but I had seen the care with which you had assembled them and how tirelessly you had worked. I too want to do my bit for the people. I don’t have much savings so I wanted to give you my one day’s salary. Please use it however you think is best.’ With these words, he handed me a soiled and sealed envelope and took his leave. I opened it and out dropped a cheque for Rs 160.

  I looked at it for some time, then I turned to Kumar and said, ‘This cheque is worth Rs 16 lakh to me. You asked why we should continue working? It is for people like these, who open their hearts and put their faith in us.’

  11

  True Shades of Nature

  Working in a disaster relief area opens ones eyes not only to the suffering of the people affected, but also brings out the true character in many people. When the tsunami hit our shores, while most people responded with bravery and generosity, there were plenty of stories of people using it as a publicity gimmick to further their own agendas.

  Soon after the rehabilitation work started, it was clear that a massiv
e amount of money was required. Funds started pouring in and almost everyone was seen to be busy with fundraising. Among them happened to be my friend Rekha. Now Rekha is a good person, but talking to her for too long gives me a headache because she refuses to ever come to the point. She lives alone in Bangalore as her husband is in Dubai and daughter is settled in Delhi. She has a lot of energy and often does not know what to do with it!

  One day, when I was busy supervising our tsunami relief work in Bangalore, she landed up in my office and started chatting about the effects of the waves. The description carried on for some time, till I got tired and said, ‘Yes Rekha I know. I have just spent a few weeks in these areas and have seen for myself the extent of devastation. Did you have some work with me? I am busy with coordinating our relief programme.’

  Then she came to the point.

  ‘You know, in the area where I live, there is a youth club. The boys and girls from that club went from door to door collecting money for the victims. They are very keen to hand over the money to you. Will you come and accept it? It would encourage them to do more such work.’

  I was happy to hear about this and agreed to go there. After all youngsters need to be appreciated when they take initiative and do such work. But Rekha was still sitting looking hesitant. Finally she said, ‘Sudha, the children have ended up spending money from their pockets, going all over the area on their bikes and mopeds . . .’

  Immediately I replied, ‘In that case Rekha, tell them to deduct that expenditure from the collection before handing it over to me.’ Rekha left my office looking happy.

  I reached the locality on the appointed day. I was astonished to see that elaborate arrangements had been made for a full-fledged function. There was a well-decorated dais and marquee. A sound system was in place and even the media had been invited. Coffee and biscuits were being served from a table placed in one corner of the field. Soon the function started. There were plenty of people willing to talk and for a long time each person spoke about the tsunami, the devastation, why it had happened etc. People who had never visited the areas tried to speak knowledgeably about the plight of the victims. Finally, Rekha, who was moderating, handed over a beautifully decorated purse to me. A gang of young people came onto the dais and proceeded to garland me. A mike was thrust at me and I spoke a few words of appreciation and encouragement. Finally it was over and I made my way back to my car. Already, in my mind, I was planning the things I could buy with the contribution. Some milk powder, tarpaulin or fishing nets? I thought it was wonderful how they had collected so much money and handed it over to me out of sheer trust. With such thoughts still on my mind, I opened the purse.

 
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